Friday, April 13, 2012

Concerning Female Protagonists

Last summer, I joined a casual summer workshopping group. We met at a coffee shop near campus every other week with one goal in mind: be productive. Write. It was last summer that I came up with an idea for my big grad project; a nautical story about a girl who searches for a way to bring the sea back to her decaying town (because, of course, the sea up and left one day). I remember typing up the first chapters like I had a fever. I couldn't wait to have it looked at. My main character was rather passive, unsuspectingly quiet and weird. 

And apparently, that became a problem. Real fast. 

We sat around the table, wiping the sweat off our drinks, and a discussion started about where I failed with my character. Because I was told that she couldn't possibly hold the story together as she was. She needed to be strong, loud, and snarky. She had to kick butt. 

I went home for weeks, revising those chapters, trying to please because I fell under a lethal spell. Thinking too much about what other people want and expect our of books. The trends. Ohhh, the trends. And I lost the simple desire to write the story I wanted to tell. 

I lasted the whole summer with that story, but it broke like glass as soon as school was in session again. I couldn't touch it, for fear I'd slice open my fingers with the boring setting, lackluster love interest, and mediocre lead female. If I tried to piece it back together again, it would splinter further into something unrecognizable. 

This had never happened to me before while working on a project. It scared me and I think I was haunted for a while by the metaphorical ghosts of what to write. 

I bring this up for a few reasons. With the end of the school year on the horizon, my imagination is soaring again. Ideas are attacking me on the daily drives to and from work. I rush home to boot up my computer and type up notes. 

The story above that I thought had been lost forever came back to me, glowing with hope. I've been plotting it out for a rainy day, when I have time to work on it, but I'm loving the revamp so far. A new love interest and new goals. The missing sea is wilier than ever. But one thing hasn't changed. My female lead is still herself. 

And I'm proud of her. 

I recently saw the movie Mirror Mirror and basked in the lovely, wild adventure of seeing Snow White on screen. Snow White has always been one of my least favorite fairy tales, but I've been blue lately and the cheer that oozed off the trailers captured me utterly. I had to see the movie. And it was glorious. 

Movie reviews, when I attempt them, are pretty sloppy. So I'm not even going to pretend to try. But I can honestly say that a part of me will be humming with impatience for the DVD release, so I can immerse myself in Mirror Mirror all over again. It's just what the doctor ordered, haha. 

Tarsem Singh was the director, having filmed other such movies as The Cell and The Fall (both movies displayed proudly on my shelf). I hadn't realized straight away that he was the one working on Mirror Mirror, until, of course, I saw the opening sequence. Ohhh. Woah. I can't even. 

But here's where things get ugly. 

Like anyone who's ever enjoyed a good film, book, or whatever, I went searching for images. And what I found, to my utter horror, was a ton of movie reviews written by bloggers that pretty much flayed the movie alive. I was shocked. Good thing I had been sitting down at the time (though I nursed a nasty stomach ache for some time, just thinking about what those reviews said). 

What disturbed me the most pertained to the character of Snow White and how imperfect she was as a "good" female lead. Which I totally didn't get. Sure, Snow wasn't loud, but she was snarky (just not annoyingly so), strong and kicked butt (did I mention she saved the prince and the dwarfs a few times?). Her quiet intensity in the face of danger was what captured my attention - and made me really like Snow as a character. She wasn't puffed up to be a hyper super heroine that people seem to demand these days. She didn't have to be tough and masculine in order to beat her stepmother. In fact, in the ending scene, her final words to her stepmother are jarring and powerful. Gave me the shivers. 

I also read quite a few times that it was "wrong" that Snow ended up marrying the prince at the end. That she essentially went from "one prison to another."


How bleak is that? 

A few reviewers even suggested that Snow should have gone off to travel the world on her own, leaving everything behind. Hi. Where you not watching the movie? In the very beginning, and all throughout, it's clear what Snow cares about most: the kingdom. She wants to protect the people from harm (especially after the stepmother's tyranny) and rebuild the kingdom to be a place of peace and laughter. It would be irresponsible to run off on hyper super heroine adventures, especially since her heart is with her people. Having met and fallen in love with the prince is just the icing on the cake, haha. 

Yep. Icing. On the cake.

While I am looking forward to seeing the other remake of Snow White, this is the one I was rooting for. And I'm glad that Tarsem didn't back down from making the version of Snow White he wanted to tell. I think it's brave of him, and very admirable, to stick to his guns, haha. 

It reminds me to keep faith in what I believe in: that the world consists of all kinds of people and they all have stories to tell. Some girls (for the purpose of this post) are role models and others give us lessons to learn. We need to read about Bella Swans and we need to read the Katniss Everdeens. Whether loud or quiet, snarky or taciturn, girls of all kinds have inner strength. They can all be brave. 


  1. This is so interesting. I have the same issue with female protagonists and the fact that if they don't fall into a certain stereotype (the kick-butt stereotype I guess I'd call it, haha), then they're considered a waste of time. It's so tiresome because writers want their characters to be as individual as real people! Good for you for sticking to your guns. I remember having a moment of shock while reading Birdcage Girl, when Diamond reflects on Ashlyn's femininity. I was shocked just because, well, I haven't encountered something like that in a book in a LONG time! And I loved it. If you'd been writing for the masses, Ashlyn would've killed her mother, taken it upon herself to hunt Dr. Eau-de-nil down, and at the end, dismissed Diamond and gone off into the world. It was awesome to read about a female protagonist who's, well....a girl! She was quiet and quirky and selfless. Not a regular girl, maybe, since being locked in a birdcage hardly qualifies as 'normal', but I can tell you followed your inspiration with her and she came out as you intended. Definitely a female protagonist that sticks with you. :) She totally still kicked butt.
    I need to see Mirror Mirror now! I hadn't been planning on it, but you've converted me. :) I've always been a princess fan, so I'm sure I'll enjoy it. It looks awesome!

    1. Woah, I hadn't thought of it like that when I wrote that scene with Diamond, but I suppose it must have been unconscious. I've never considered Ashlyn to be "kick-butt" strong, but I do admire her - I don't know if I could have acted like she did in some of those circumstances. Thank you for telling me your thoughts about that - I'm so glad that you liked the decisions I made (and was stunned my them, haha). OMG, I couldn't live with myself if I had her ditch Diamond at the end! *shivers at the thought*

      Yesss! Do see Mirror Mirror! You're going to love it!

  2. I agree that all leading ladies don't need to be the super heroine, agressive "save the world and incompetent men too" type of woman. Look at Jane Austen. Her women were strong but flawed, and we loved them most because they overcame their flaws and got the man they loved to boot! Please make your heroine who catches the sea to be imperfect. Think of Anande's Nattie who battled with her inner "director" - very imperfect, but we cheered for her. Our own less than perfect selves will always want the underdog to conquer. Let your main character be less and become more and that will lift us too.
    Linda D

    1. Hey Linda! Jane Austen is a wonderful example! I can't tell you how much I enjoy all her books. The books are romantic for so many reasons, but especially because Jane's leading ladies find love without compromising themselves

      Yes, Nattie is a perfect example! She's beautifully flawed and just draws you in, as the reader. I was definitely cheering for her too!

      Thank you! I will keep my character imperfect ;)

  3. That's something I wanted to talk about in my panel presentation, but I was pressed for time as it was :(

    I really agree with what you're saying here, and honestly I think it's just another way misogyny shows itself - completely devaluing femininity. So we start out expecting girls in media to be meek, kind, caring, selfless - sort of the standard Disney Princess troupe, I guess, which are perfectly fine traits, but obviously not all girls are that way. And obviously expecting all girls to be that way is problematic. And setting up anything as an "ideal" for femininity is super dumb.

    But then it's like this 180, like you're saying. Everyone being like UM EXCUSE ME, YOUR FEMALE PROTAGONIST SEEMS TO BE KIND OF QUIET. THIS IS A PROBLEM. Or WHY DOESN'T SHE JUST KILL EVERYONE AND RUN AWAY AT THE END??? Or talking about how much they hate Bella Swan's character when really guys, really, her personality is like the least offensive thing in those books.

    I think people are really bad at recognizing different kinds of strengths, like you're saying. And people are also so, so, so judgmental of female protagonists. And so unwilling to accept traditionally feminine things, because traditionally feminine things still are seen as lesser than traditionally masculine things. So in order for a girl to be Awesome, she can't be feminine. Those two things are seem as mutually exclusive and it's just a bunch of crap, because in the end we're still expecting women to behave a Certain Particular Way, and we're still getting mad at women who don't fit that expectation.

    SO HEY I have a lot of feelings about this subject haha. Um. Sorry. I will be quiet now.

    1. I think we'd need to spend an entire month talking about all that stuff. Fifteen minutes totally wasn't enough, haha. I didn't think about this as a reversal - the devaluing of femininity - but it makes so much sense now that you've spelled it out. It's been bothering me a lot (especially in regards to books), so thanks for putting it so clearly (I think you've said everything I wish I could have - and very well done. I feel like I ramble too much on the page to do any argument justice).

      The least offensive part of the book? Ohhohohoho. I think you're right.

      Yeah! It doesn't matter what the "ideal" is - it doesn't work simply because one-size-fits-all doesn't work for personalities.

  4. I, too, saw that opening animation in Mirror Mirror and was blown away. Just to be able to recreate a cracked porcelain look. Just stunning. Upon further digging into it, it seems that that part was not really directed by Tarsem, whose work I admired from The Cell and the visually stunning The Fall. Ben Hibon, who came to notice for the magnificient Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows animation, was the one who directed that beautiful opening. There is a blog on it online by an artist Alex Liddell

    1. Ooooh, yes, I can see the similar in the style of the animation - thank you for pointing that out (I might not have made the connection between the two films).

      That animation just set the tone of the whole movie :)

  5. I remember seeing a trailer for Mirror Mirror! I dispassionately thought it looked very cool. (I say dispassionately because I know such films aren't really up my alley, but I can appreciate their trailers impersonally. Hm, I'm making no sense, am I? Hehe.)
    Generally I'm all in favour of a princess (who has been longing for freedom) dumping her newly found prince in favour of adventures, but in this case - if the kingdom was the most important thing to her... well, that's stupid people are saying such things. Ugh!

    For heroines, what people want essentially seems to be, er... how do I put this in polite language? *ahem* Basically men with female attributes.

    Anyway, I am so glad your story has come back to you, and with a heroine you recognize. :) All my heroines are pretty quiet, but don't think they're very brave, haha.

  6. Hi Kim... Lauren here :)
    I'm in agreement with what you & the other commenters have said. I just wanted to add that a few months ago I rewatched the original Snow White after not having seen it in a long time. What I enjoyed the most about her character was her sensitivity, compassion, and union with nature. In vedic philosophy/hinduism there is a concept known as Shiva and Shakti. Shiva and Shakti are a sort of divine couple... Shakti embodies the creative feminine, and shiva the masculine (through the phallic symbol of the lingam) I think that any compelling character, whether male or female, embodies both the Shiva&Shakti forces. Otherwise they appear one dimensional, unrealistic, or less memorable. There's a male character who I believe demonstrates this balance really well--the character of Kwai Chang Caine played by David Carradine in the series Kung Fu. He's a Shaolin Priest that seems to always demonstrate compassion, kindness, reflection, and yet he has amazing strength, skill, and focus. His character moved me so much because of this intricate balance. If he just went around fighting everyone all of the time, it wouldn't have left such an impression.
    Love you!

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  7. Well put, Kim! Lately it's either one extreme or the other - painfully awkward or loud and proud. It's nice to read about someone with a unique personality for a change, like Cassandra from I Capture the Castle.

    It especially bugs me when someone calls a writer 'anti-feminist' because of a female character being either too stereotypically feminine or not stereotypically masculine ENOUGH. I say, enough with the reverse gender roles, and that goes both ways! If a girl wants to be quiet, if she isn't necessarily out to conquer the world, if she's not that assertive, it doesn't mean she's anti-feminist.

    Oh, and now I definitely have to watch Mirror Mirror! Didn't know there was a new Snow White remake apart from SW and the Huntsman!